Sharia law; thinking aloud

While out in Tufnell Park on Friday I met a woman who lectures in Arabic studies.

A good chance to discuss the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on Sharia law. Her verdict: he’s either ignorant or stupid. You cannot give equal status to a legal system that does not treat men and women equally. I agree – who wouldn’t? However, I’m not convinced that Rowan Williams was saying that, and I don’t believe that he’s ignorant or stupid; perhaps he’s too thoughtful for this soundbite age.

When the news headline popped up on my desktop – Archbishop says Sharia law inevitable – I was totally dismayed. Sharia law, doesn’t that mean executions, amputations, stoning? As a liberal Anglican, I didn’t know what he meant and wished he hadn’t opened up such a difficult issue. And I was frustrated that of all the things to speak out about, he could pick on such a uniquely controversial topic, uniting secularists and fundamentalists, liberals and conservatives, against him. Plus it is giving a great opportunity to his existing critics to have another go. The church is supposed to ‘keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). Instead we seem to have more factions and rivalries than many secular organisations. Despite being a politician, I dislike church politics intensely. It seems to me to be rival groups of angry men looking for areas of disagreement, instead of uniting around the basics of our shared faith.

Rowan Williams’ job is not to be bland or popular. It isn’t to appease his critics or keep me comfortable. It is to explore the church’s role in the world and Christians’ role in society. It’s to make us think about our faith, not take it for granted. So what do I think about relating Islamic law to our secular state?

I believe the law must apply equally to everyone, regardless of their faith, just as it should regardless of wealth, class, etc. Justice is blind for a reason. But the law should also give the widest possible freedom to people to practice their faith, provided that it does not impinge on the rights of others. So Nadia Eweida should be allowed to wear her cross; but Lilian Ladele should not be allowed to opt out of conducting civil partnerships.

Much civil law is about dispute resolution; divorces, contracts, compensation, debt, etc. Arbitration and mediation are encouraged. So if Muslims choose to have that mediation carried out in a religious context, then, provided the rights of the individual are respected (and yes, I am particularly thinking of women in this context) then I don’t have a problem with that.

Although in many ways we are a secular society now, there is still much ‘cultural Christianity’ that is taken for granted by people who don’t necessarily have a Christian faith or ever go to church. If British Muslims approaching the civil courts find that their faith is acknowledged rather than ignored, that they are allowed to be part of the solution rather than a distraction, if they can be part of the system not simply subject to it, then that is surely a good thing.

Yes, British citizens of all faiths and none must live by our laws and alongside each other in peace. How can we ask people to give their loyalty and respect to a civil state if that state routinely suppresses their identity. As a liberal Christian I believe passionately in multi-culturalism – by which I mean mutual respect for and tolerance of different faiths within a common framework of rights. I want the right to practice my faith in whichever country I live. And I would offer no less to Muslims in Britain.

I’m in the generation that grew up with the Sex Discrimination Act. For the first time, laws and institutions were changing to accommodate women, rather than women being excluded or having to copy men to fit in. So it’s conceivable that in the future some British laws and institutions may change in ways that are influenced by Muslim values. That’s not imposing alien values on Britons; it’s recognising that British Muslims have as much right to shape our common society as anyone else. We should judge all such changes on their merits, rather than a knee-jerk for or against.

This isn’t easy or comfortable stuff, and I’m still struggling with bits of it; but it’s important we can talk about these issues without the hostility and hysteria that the Archbiship is facing at the moment.

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